Filed under: Rugby | Tags: british lions, delon armitage, england, first team, Rugby, south africa
England captain Jason Robinson’s shoulders slump in depressed surrender. Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll scores the try that condemns England to their third successive Six Nations defeat in the 2005 tournament. England confirm their demise from the zenith of international rugby. Two paltry victories follow to secure third place in the competition, but the foundations are well and truly crumbling.
Despite this dismal situation, some England players felt safe in the knowledge of an opportunity to redeem themselves. The promise of a starting place in the Test side on the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand was eagerly anticipated. With the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Richard Hill, Andrew Sheridan and Josh Lewsey bolstering the squad, England offered some palpable quality to mull over, whatever the results of their Six Nations campaign.
Returning to the present day, things are roughly the same in the England camp. Martin Johnson’s team imitate their predecessors by being gracious and brave in defeat, yet losing nonetheless. However, regarding the Lions tour to South Africa later this year, the scene has changed significantly and worryingly.
The current crop has yet to fill the void left behind by the old guard and many are too inexperienced to gain a place on their own credentials. Although England’s defeat to Wales last month was courageous, the majority of players gave the distinct impression of punching above their weight.
Even the experienced heads of Mike Tindall and Joe Worsley were noticeably past their best. With the prospect of world champions South Africa on the not too distant horizon, this will not fill Lions manager Ian McGeechan with confidence.
McGeechan knows what is required from his side to win in June, having led the Lions to historic success over the Springboks in 1997. He said upon his appointment:
“It is a unique challenge, you need a tight group, players who can work together, coaches who can work together, with everybody getting the opportunity to make their mark.”
In other words, there will be no room for the indiscipline and naivety of which England have been culpable in their recent matches. Johnson himself conceded after the Wales match:
“If we give that many penalties away at Croke Park [against Ireland a fortnight ago] and have two guys in the sin bin, we’ll lose.”
He wasn’t wrong, as 18 penalties cost England victory by a point.
But these issues of tactics and man-management are comparatively easy to resolve. The real concern lies in the gulf in standard between England and their Home Nations counterparts.
Wales are leading the charge for Lions starting places and it is not difficult to see why. Warren Gatland has instilled a self-belief in his players that has them performing consistently at the top of their game, and form will play a huge part in McGeechan’s Test team selection.
Ireland are also resurgent, with the likes of David Wallace emerging unexpectedly and making his case for the prized Lions jersey. In addition, Scotland’s Mike Blair will undoubtedly press for the nod at scrum-half, with stiff competition from Mike Phillips and Gareth Cooper. Harry Ellis, should he go, shouldn’t hold his breath.
Splitting the pitch through the middle, there is not an available position in the backs for an English player. Expect it to be Welsh dominated with Brian O’Driscoll claiming outside centre, and the above dilemma at scrum-half. Cipriani has been touted to feature on the tour, but he is yet to start for England this campaign. Fly-half looks to be a straight fight between Stephen Jones and James Hook, who currently tussle for Wales’ number 10 shirt.
England’s best back has been Delon Armitage, who has grown in composure and maturity since his autumn debut. However even he is surpassed by Ireland’s Rob Kearney and the mercurial Welshman Lee Byrne, dubbed recently by Jeremy Guscott as:
“The best player playing in the world right now.”
Thus is England’s strongest chance potentially dashed in the back three.
Never mind the backs then, on to the forwards. England have a wealth of Lions history amongst the pack, such as Martin Johnson’s captaining them both in 1997 and 2001 respectively. Of the 23 forwards originally selected for the 2005 tour, 13 were English.
Shockingly, England also fall short here this time round. There has been continuous difficulty in replacing Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio on the back row, with various combinations tried over the past few years. Lewis Moody could be an option, if he can keep fit.
James Haskell is England’s greatest hope, but his indiscipline will not be to McGeechan’s liking. Furthermore, the stiff, proven competition is staggering: Ryan Jones, Matryn Williams, Simon Taylor, David Wallace, Andy Powell, the list goes on.
The locks pick themselves, unfortunately for both Steve Borthwick and Nick Kennedy. Irish veteran Paul O’Connell will be partnered with the colossal Alun Wyn-Jones, with Donnacha O’Callaghan waiting in the wings. It surely can’t be any other way.
Andrew Sheridan is not the tower he once was in the front row and neither is Phil Vickery. The dynamic Gethin Jenkins and Scotland’s Jason White are in better form than any England equivalent
So it seems, from top to bottom, the Lions side will be a fantastic proposition for South Africa come June. The unprecedented flipside, however, is English players will have to work harder than ever before to be a significant part of this team.